Once Upon a Time in Mexico Review

by Robin Clifford (robin AT reelingreviews DOT com)
September 10th, 2003

"Once Upon a Time in Mexico"

The saga that started out as a $7000 production, 1992's "El Mariachi," evolved into a sequel, "Desperado," that propelled Antonio Banderas and Selma Hayek to international stardom. Now,
director-writer-producer-cinematographer-editor-and-more Robert Rodriguez continues the adventures of the guitar-slinging hero against a backdrop of revolution, greed and revenge in "Once Upon a Time in Mexico."
The eclectically talented Rodriguez shifts his focus a little away from El Mariachi this outing as he continues the legend of his surrealistic hero. But, with Johnny Depp given much of the limelight as a corrupt CIA operative working in Mexico and not liking it, the legend expands. The story begins with one-eyed barman Belini (Cheech Marin) telling the inquisitive Sands (Depp) about the fabled guitar-toting hero who stands for justice and hates the corrupt criminal influences in his country.

Sands searches for and finds the Mariachi and lays down a proposal: he wants to hire the guitar-playing gunman to kill the assassin who will soon attempt to kill the President of Mexico. The CIA agent isn't there to stop the coup, just make sure the killer, the ruthless General Marquez (Gerardo Vigil), does not seize power for himself. Marquez, the main henchman of drug lord Barillo (Willem Dafoe), is the man responsible for the deaths of the Mariachi's beloved wife and partner Carolina (Hayek) and their beautiful little girl. The guitarist/assassin agrees to take on the mission and recruits his mariachi partners Lorenzo (Enrique Iglesias) and hard-drinking Fideo (Marco Leonardi) to go into battle against the army of bad guys.

"Once Upon a Time in Mexico" is a fast-paced, super-charged action fest that abounds with shoot-'em-ups, chases, ambushes, mayhem galore and, as expected, a funny and entertaining performance by Johnny Depp. There is a lot going on in this concise (about 100 minute) homage to the works of Sergio Leone as the man known only as El Mariachi seeks revenge for the death of his family. Something died, too, within the man and, even though he does not trust Sands (when you meet him, you won't either), takes the job of killing the vicious killer, Marquez.

As the story races along from one big bang action sequence to the next, Sands is wheeling and dealing his way up the corruption ladder until he finally is confronted by the cold hearted kingpin Barillo. The nasty drug lord will stop at nothing to ensure his success and has the CIA agent's eyes gouged out. Sands, not a man to be diverted, enlists the aid of a kind-hearted little boy who helps the blind agent, with blood streaming from his eye-sockets, in his fight against Barillo's gunman. I understand that there is talk about spinning off the eyeless assassin in another Rodriguez feature - if Depp signs up, I will be gleefully there when it screens.

Although "Once Upon a Time in America" is an adrenaline pumping actioner, it also benefits from the caliber of its cast. Banderas is best when he is teamed with Hayek in the film flashbacks. There is a chemistry and energy between the two that makes them entertaining to watch as a modern movie couple, equals in every way. Depp, as always, is a pleasure to watch as he uses a fake arm to dupe his adversaries or as he extols the virtues of a regionally favorite pork dish - one is so good that he insists that he kill the chef for his perfection - and does so!

The cast, besides the principals, is made up with a Hispanic who's-who of character actors. Cheech Marin, always a pleasure to watch (who can forget his turn in "Paulie"), is solid as the one-eyed teller of the El Mariachi legend. Danny Trejos is around, again, this time as the badass bad guy who challenges the Mariachi - guess who wins. Cuban beauty Eva Mendes has a small role as a Mexican federale who is, secretly, the daughter of Barillo and damn near as wickedly bad. Ruben Blades is a sympathetic figure as a retired FBI agent who wants nothing more than justice. Mickey Rourke, about the only gringo, is fun as the Chihuahua-toting tough guy who works for the drug lord.

Production values are solid, as you would expect from perfectionist Rodriguez. He utilizes high-definition digital cameras to capture the action and the more portable equipment gives the maker the freedom to explore the genre more fully. Rodriguez, who, besides the above noted hats, also performed the jobs of production designer, visual effects supervisor, re-recording mixer and composer. He probably catered it, too. He is a true jack-of-all-trades and puts his multiple talents to the test and succeeds, mostly, with "Once Upon a Time in Mexico." I give it a B.

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